8 & 9: Jack & Reading In

Jack: A Life with Writers by James King

Jack: A Life with Writers

Jack is a biography of Jack McClelland, who ran McClelland & Stewart (Canadian publisher that his father founded) for many years (1950s – 80s). McClelland championed Canadian literature and started the New Canadian Library series. As biographies go, this is a pretty entertaining one. You learn (if you didn’t already know!) how close to bankruptcy publishing firms have always operated as well as all sorts of gossip about famous Canadian writers. Be prepared for the usual sexism of the era.

Reading In: Alice Munro’s Archives by JoAnn McCaig

Reading In: Alice Munro's Archives

Reading In is an exploration of Alice Munro’s archives, that is, the papers (primarily business letters) she has donated to the University of Calgary. It’s based on McCaig’s PhD dissertation. Here’s the fascinating part: Prior to publishing the book, McCaig published an article based on her research. Munro (& others) gave their permission for letters to be quoted in the article, however Munro was displeased with the article and subsequently denied McCaig permission to further quote or paraphrase her letters. This means that the book is a truncated version of what McCaig originally intended it to be.

Bizarre, right? Why would a university pay an author for her papers but not make her sign a standard agreement giving researchers permission to quote from the materials as necessary? Don’t universities do this? If they don’t, what’s the purpose of buying this stuff then? In any case, copyright issues with quoting aside, I really don’t see how legally Munro could deny McCaig permission to paraphrase the letters she donated to a university library. It’s like how there is no expectation of privacy with respect to stuff you put in the garbage. She can’t have an expectation of privacy with respect to stuff the public can access.

Reading In had an interesting premise, but I had difficulty with some of the conclusions that McCaig came to. As noted above, Munro only donated her business correspondence. Because the collection is an incomplete record, I think it’s difficult to draw any overarching conclusions about a correspondence or the relationship it documents. Munro obviously kept her personal correspondence (which may include some letters from people she also exchanged business letters with) and there’s also evidence that she likely retained letters that contained editorial suggestions. And of course there’s no record of conversations that took place on the phone or in person (which would seem pertinent when you’re talking about the nature of a relationship). So, ultimately, I’m thinking that perhaps the more valuable discoveries to be made in such an archive will be smaller—more contained—findings that rely less on assumptions.